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The Structuring of Organizational Power Published: Sunday, April 14, 2002 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

When differences about values and belief systems lead to conflict over whose values are to dominated over whose, and under what condition, the conflict can easily transform dynamics and exchanges into a power struggle. Value differences automatically do not always lead to conflict between people, units and organizations. Differences in values and belief systems can co-exit in mutually enriching ways, as it is the case in melding music and drama in the production of musical theater. This does not mean that the tension created by such differences disappears, but it is out of these tensions that the overall fabric of the production is created, generating an outcome not possible within the medium of either music or drama alone. When these tensions are not managed, however, conflict between the musicians and actors can take on a war like quality, making the whole performance less than what music or drama alone could has to offered.

In every organization units and teams differ in the amount of power they have. This may result from their differential access to resources or from having control over critical information, or from being in a position to influence significantly the destiny of others. Power can also emerge from the perceptions that group have of each other. (Ironically, sometimes the power that it is attributed to others is inversely proportional to the distance between the two parties). A unit may achieve power because others are convinced that it will exercise that power in a way that does not undermine the interest of those without power. In some cases, units will reject possibilities that would be in their interest, simply because they do not want those who suggested them to have the power resulting from coming up with something that was universally accepted. Power may also result from the unit’s sense of impotence. Feeling powerless, a unit may approach another unit as though this other unit was powerful and in doing so give other unit power over it, not because it was powerful but because the powerless unit imbued it with power. In this sense, power is an attribute of the form, content and symbolism of the relationship between units.

In organizational structures, people, groups and units are invariably arranged in some type of hierarchy where power it the underlying dimension. Some of these actors could be in a position to define the nature of these interactions among participant parties (setting goals, placing demands on others, pursuing types of results, reacting to initiatives, deciding on priorities). These are differences between proactivity versus reactivity.

Power differences set the stage for both a large number of potential conflict and creative possibilities that would not emerge if the conflict were taken away. The paradox of power is that when one unit has more power than the another, the less powerful redefines its condition as absolute powerlessness. This creates the belief that only if the more powerful give up some of their power can the less powerful ever have a chance to improve their situation.

Finally, polarizing exchanges between units leads to escalating polarization, setting the relations in a more intense conflict modes. When external conflict exists, it is easy for a unit to generate a convincing rationale for internal members to put aside the differences that otherwise fragmented it, thus having more power to confront external threats. These are the dynamics of structuring organizational power.

 


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